Madness, Betrayal and the Lash
The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver
From Chapter 1: A Hero Returns
On July 12, 1771, a tiny, battered ship slipped up the English Channel and anchored at the Downs, a sheltered area of sea a little north of Dover. Several men clambered over the gunwales and down into a waiting longboat and were rowed to shore. The ship was unceremoniously guided by a pilot up the Thames for repairs and refitting in London, where the crew would be paid off. It was an unremarkable and somewhat deflating conclusion to one of the greatest marine voyages of all time. No one yet had any knowledge of the tremendous and world altering accomplishments of the ship's forty-two-year-old lieutenant, James Cook, during his three years of exploring and charting the far side of the world. Word travelled quickly. First the Admiralty, then the people of London and then all of Britain and Europe in turn heard the astonishing revelations of this first of Cook's, and Britain's, voyages of science.
A slim, distinguished man of ordinary parentage but extraordinary nautical skills and determination, James Cook had accomplished far more than the Admiralty had expected of him. His orders had called for him to explore the South Pacific, but no one imagined that Cook would be so thorough. He had landed at and charted Tahiti and the adjacent Society Islands, rediscovered New Zealand after Abel Tasman's little-documented voyage fifty years earlier, sailed around both the North and South islands, proving their disputed insularity, and charted 2,400 miles of New Zealand's coast. He had also cruised along the east coast of Australia and charted it. He had discovered entirely new land masses and brought back previously unknown, intriguing and potentially valuable plants and animals. The grand three-year adventure presented Britain with a great deal of new information about the world's geography and peoples and celestial knowledge useful for navigation. The expedition's botanist and naturalist-the young aristocrat Joseph Banks-displayed countless new specimens of plants and animals. The world would never be quite the same: this voyage set in motion a flurry of similar expeditions from Britain, France and Spain to discover, explore and take possession of overseas land before the end of the century.
Most of the fame of the voyage initially went to Joseph Banks, thereby bolstering the scientific credentials of the voyage and overshadowing its less illustrious but more pragmatic purpose: to counter French expansion and extend Britain's imperial arm into the Pacific. Extending imperial aims was a surreptitious activity in this remarkable era. The success of and the publicity given to the glorious voyage of "Mr. Banks" was a feather in Britain's cap, bestowing national prestige in a brief era of international peace, when competition was scientific rather than military. Banks's and Cook's findings were published and graciously shared with the rest of Europe as a gesture of camaraderie and mutual friendship.
By the time Cook's journals were published several months later, after being nipped and tucked and enlivened by an editor, the expedition's fame and celebrity had spread to its commander: Cook, the lower-middle-class upstart, a Scottish migrant labourer's son who first went to sea on North Sea coal ships, was lionized in the parlours of the distinguished and fashionable. Cook was one of the few sailors in the Royal Navy's history to rise through the ranks, be granted a commission as an officer and then command an expedition of great importance and high profile.
Tall and stern, with a natural sense of command and charisma, rough around the edges and only rudimentarily educated, Cook became a national hero, the embodiment of all that his ambitious and outward-looking nation aspired to be or imagined itself to be. Cook was the idealized symbol of Great Britain: bold, fearless, curious, wise, meticulous and generous in victory but, above all, unequalled in the magnitude of his accomplishments.
For one inspired and adventurous fourteen-year-old boy, Cook's return was a call to action, to live a life of adventure, travel and danger rather than follow the predictable, stable and dull road that his upbringing might suggest. Like thousands of others in the wake of Cook's epic circumnavigation and the optimistic age it ushered in, George Vancouver dreamt of sailing to the farthest reaches of the globe to see wonders that Europeans had never seen before. Several months after Cook's return, rumours began to circulate about the possibility of a second, even greater and more demanding voyage to the South Seas, to be led by Banks and Cook. The young Vancouver knew he wanted to be part of that voyage.
George Vancouver was born on June 22, 1757, in King's Lynn, Norfolk, an ancient seaport about one hundred miles north of London on the North Sea at the mouth of the River Ouse. He was the youngest of six children born to John Jasper Vancouver and Bridget Berners. His mother was of a respected Essex and Norfolk lineage. Her father had been the sheriff for the region. His fortunes had declined, and he had moved to King's Lynn from his estate at Wiggenhall St. Mary, a few miles south of the town. When she wed, Bridget Berners was, for the time, the advanced age of thirty-two. John Jasper Vancouver was descended from the ancient, titled Van Coeverden clan of Overijssel, in the eastern Netherlands. The Vancouvers were landowners whose connection with King's Lynn resulted from trade and land reclamation: the area's low-lying fens and marshes were similar to the terrain of the Netherlands, and the drainage and land-reclaiming work, involving dikes and drains, was done primarily by Dutch engineers. Vancouver's great-grandfather, Reint Wolter van Coeverden, was likely the first to extend his business and move his family across the sea when he married Jane Lillingston in 1699. Their son, Lucas Hendrik, married an Englishwoman named Sarah, of unknown surname, who was Vancouver's grandmother. By the mid-eighteenth century she is recorded as dwelling in King's Lynn, as part of a possibly significant Dutch minority. Her son was John Jasper. George Vancouver was well aware of his Dutch ancestry; when he was naming geographical features in Alaska in 1794, he named Point Couverden "after the seat of my ancestors."
John Jasper was an important man in King's Lynn. In addition to holding several other official positions, he was the deputy collector of customs. George Godwin, Vancouver's first biographer, wrote in Vancouver: A Life that John Jasper "was a small man, very active in the Tory interest, and contemporary political satires lampoon him as 'Little Van,' but without malice." The customs position was granted by Sir Charles Turner, a powerful local Tory and one of the greatest landowners in the region. The post was one of prestige and political influence. Although Turner held the customs sinecure, he delegated the actual work to John Jasper, who was wealthy but not aristocratic.
George Vancouver grew up in a large, extended family that enjoyed reasonable wealth and status in their town. They lived, according to Godwin, in "a large house set snugly in a well-matured garden of pear and apple trees; while in the big yard on the east side of the house stood a roomy stables." He and his older brothers, John and Charles (possibly twins), probably attended the King's Lynn Grammar School, where they learned the rudiments of mathematics and English composition as well as French and Latin, skills that were of great help to Vancouver in his career in the Royal Navy. George's mother died in 1768, when he was only eleven years old, and his father was left to raise the family with the help of his grandmother Sarah. Although George was partially raised by his three older sisters-Bridget, who was at least six years his senior, Sarah and Mary-it was with his brothers Charles and John, barely two years older than he, that he maintained the strongest relationships throughout his life-a life in which he seldom returned to King's Lynn for any significant length of time.
King's Lynn was a thriving and important port. Servicing Europe and five inland counties of eastern England, it was the fifth greatest port in terms of custom duties in all of Britain. Its harbour was cluttered with ships; its streets were crowded with carts hauling goods to and from the docks and enlivened by the antics of tattooed and pierced eared sailors, and occasionally by the violence of press gangs securing "recruits" for the navy. The greater world was evident in King's Lynn, and the dozens of ships in the harbour were the tangible vehicles that communicated with that world. They arrived and departed daily from Europe and beyond. The commerce of the world passed through the busy harbour, as did the news of the world, including, very quickly, news about the exploits and discoveries of Cook's voyages.
Vancouver came of age during a remarkable era in human history. The late eighteenth century offered a rare window of peace, a temporary lull in the epic struggle between France and Britain for global pre-eminence. The Seven Years War had ended in 1763, and the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars were still years in the future. The happy coincidence of this cessation of the warfare that had plagued Europe for centuries, of the Age of Enlightenment, when reason and science and learning were emerging after centuries of fragmentation, and of improvements in naval technology was changing the lives of people worldwide. It was the beginning of an age that would witness revolutionary discoveries in medicine, science, technology and politics.
In the late eighteenth century, the focus of geographic and scientific exploration was the Pacific Ocean. Centuries of voyages by the Portuguese, the Spanish and more recently the commercially aggressive Dutch had contributed to an ever-expanding horizon. The earth was known to be a globe, and its circumference was reasonably accurately known-having been painfully revealed at the cost of thousands of mariners who had sailed blindly into the unknown and never returned. They had been smothered in the surf, broken on jagged spires of rock, swamped by monstrous waves and lost at sea because they had no accurate charts, no accurate method of navigation and no fresh food, and the last of these problems led to the most dreaded of maritime diseases: scurvy. Cook, among others, had made great strides in preventing scurvy and in perfecting recently discovered methods for navigating by calculating longitude at sea.
This spirit of fraternity in scientific inquiry masked an intense struggle: the European powers were currently fighting not for military supremacy in the late eighteenth century-although that struggle would come again all too soon and occupy much of Vancouver's career-but for cultural supremacy, as embodied by recent discoveries in science, natural history, geography and ethnography. The entire world was now Europe's playing field. By learning more about the world and unravelling more of nature's secrets, a nation gained prestige. France had already sent out Compte Louis Antoine de Bougainville on a world-girdling expedition of science and discovery, and Britain had funded several lesser voyages before Cook's. Spain had sent, from Peru, two ships that had visited Tahiti. But it was James Cook who set the new standard for scientific voyages.
One of the great geographical mysteries of the age-the talk of armchair geographers, the idly curious and high-placed officials in national governments-was the existence of the "great southern continent" described by the Greek philosopher Claudius Ptolemy around ad 150 in his renowned tome Geography. While working at the library of Alexandria, Ptolemy had created a great chart of the world, a chart that incidentally did not include North or South America or the Pacific Ocean. But in the obscure southern hemisphere he placed the mysterious land mass whose possible existence would haunt European explorers, map-makers and cartographers more than a millennium and a half later: Terra Australis Incognita, the unknown southern continent. The original inspiration for this idea sprang from the ancient Greek belief in the perfect balance and symmetry of the world. Ptolemy was certain that a southern land equal in size to the known northern lands had to exist, because a lopsided and ill-shaped earth was an affront to divine perfection. This land was all fabrication, of course, based on an odd theory and unsubstantiated travellers' tales, but Ptolemy drew this southern continent with the same confidence that he described the more tangible civilizations of the Mediterranean.
Ptolemy's Geography is the high-water mark of ancient knowledge about the earth. Less than a century after Ptolemy's time in Alexandria, the city's famous library fell on hard times, and the efforts of western geographers and astronomers to decipher the mysteries of the size and shape of the earth took a thousand-year hiatus. On several occasions during its five-century reign as the world's foremost intellectual storehouse, parts of the library's collection were burned, and political unrest around ad 270 destroyed much of the library. It struggled on for another hundred years, but in ad 391 the remnants of this great centre of learning were plundered by Christian mobs. The scrolls were burned, and the building was converted to a church.
The problems of Alexandria were symptoms of a much larger political malaise throughout the Roman Empire. The destruction of the museum and library coincided with the fragmentation of Roman central authority and a decline in trade, travel and prosperity. During the era of uncertainty that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, scientific inquiry into the shape of the earth and its unknown regions was not a priority, and Europe's intellectual focus shifted to a preoccupation with the ethical and spiritual world. Map-makers no longer attempted to accurately represent the geographical features of the world but produced simplistic and stylized route maps for pilgrims. This intellectual regression was in stark contrast to the flourishing of Islamic culture during much of this period. After the rise of Islam in the late seventh century and its military expansion throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, the work of many ancient Greek philosophers was rediscovered, translated and in some cases improved upon by Arabic scholars.
Ptolemy had the great luck that his two major works, Almagest and Geography, were translated into Arabic while the work of many others was lost. The reintroduction of Ptolemy's works to Europe from the Middle East more than a millennium later had a profound effect on the burgeoning Renaissance in Italy and, later, in all of Europe. His opinions of the ancient Greek philosophers acquired an importance that exceeded that of all others. The world according to Ptolemy became the accepted truth, and Terra Australis was part of Ptolemy's truth.
In the eighteenth century, one of the foremost experts on the mythical southern continent was a wealthy and influential Scottish armchair adventurer, Alexander Dalrymple. After studying ancient texts and consulting the most accurate maps of the day, Dalrymple asserted that the earth was unbalanced. In 1767 he announced that the existence of the southern continent was beyond question: a continent "was wanting on the South of the Equator to counterpoise the land to the North, and to maintain the equilibrium necessary for the Earth's motion." The world needed a large land mass in the southern hemisphere to prevent the earth from spinning lopsidedly and shaking itself apart. The land mass had to be of "greater extent than the whole civilized part of Asia, from Turkey eastward to the extremity of China." Surely more than fifty million people lived there, making the as-yet unexploited trade potential of the region truly immense. "The scraps from this table," Dalrymple claimed, "would be sufficient to maintain the power, dominion and sovereignty of Britain, by employing all its manufactures and ships." Dalrymple wanted to ensure that when this fabulously wealthy and vast continent was discovered and regular trade was established with Europe, Britain-rather than France or Spain-derived the greatest commercial benefit: a continuous stream of raw materials to fuel Britain's manufacturing industry. A new source of trade was an important consideration for Britain at this time because of the growing agitation in, and the quarrelsome disobedience of, the American colonies.
Locating this potentially valuable southern continent had been one of the prime objectives of Cook's first voyage, and it would continue to be an important objective of his proposed second voyage. When both Cook and Banks proclaimed their doubts that the southern continent existed, Dalrymple claimed that Cook should have sailed farther south and that if he had, he undoubtedly would have discovered the elusive continent. He claimed that Cook was derelict in his duty by not pushing farther south beyond New Zealand, 46 degrees south latitude. But in all the public debate no one seems to have voiced the seemingly commonsense observation that a continent so far south would hardly be the balmy temperate counterpart to Europe but rather the wind-blasted, snow-drenched equivalent of the Arctic. Or to have drawn the other obvious conclusion: that a land so endowed with the fruits of temperate bounty and populated with industrious multitudes had never been encountered before, despite centuries of European trade with the Indies and nearly every other region of the globe; surely, during this centuries-long commercial circus, someone would have mentioned this great land and its peoples? Nevertheless, politics and curiosity provided the political and scientific clout needed to secure funding for another voyage whose objective was to prove or disprove, once and for all, the existence of this mysterious land.
All of Britain was caught up in the spirit of the latest voyage. What new secrets about the world would be revealed? For the boy from King's Lynn, this great undertaking would be the auspicious beginning of a remarkable career. When news of the voyage became known competition was fierce to gain a position on one of the two ships, the Resolution and the Adventure. Outfitting the ships became a major public attraction with, as Cook noted, "scarce a day past on which she was not crowded with strangers who came on board for no purpose other than to see the ship in which Mr. Banks was to sail around the world." Most of the publicity was for "Mr. Banks's voyage," but with the publication of the Journals from his first voyage Cook himself began to enjoy a modest amount of celebrity. Thousands of people wanted to be part of the next history-making expedition. It would surely bring glory and secure one's career to be part of such famous exploits. One young midshipman, John Elliott, who managed to secure a berth for the voyage wrote in his memoirs that the general understanding was that "it would be quite a feather, in a young man's Cap, to go out with Captn. Cook, and it required much Intrest to get out with him."
Interest-not ability, qualifications or experience-was the time-honoured criterion for obtaining the most-sought-after positions and promotions in the Royal Navy. Both Cook and Banks were inundated with letters from important people passing on requests regarding their friends and relations. Vancouver must have had the advantage of strong influence to be selected, likely through his father's connections to Sir Charles Turner, a political ally of John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, the recently appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and one of the originators of the voyage. This was remarkable luck, and Vancouver's family celebrated when the letter assigning him to the voyage arrived. He joined the ship's muster on January 22, 1772, and soon afterward boarded a ship for the first time in his life. His fellow midshipman John Elliott described him in his memoirs as "a quiet, inoffensive young man."
Fourteen-year-old George Vancouver, already motherless for three years, had now joined the Royal Navy for a world tour with Britain's master mariner. It was the end of his youth and of his life ashore. He would be at sea for nearly four years and was on his way to becoming one of the most travelled men in history.